It's hard to imagine that when the cuisines of 13 states -- most of them south of the Mason-Dixon Line -- are represented in one place, there would be only one sample of country ham.
West Virginia came through. At the "More Than Land or Sky: Art From Appalachia" preview held last night at the National Museum of American Art, hordes of hungry art enthusiasts got a taste of West Virginia country ham.
What was lacking in indigenous food, however, was made up with a smattering of the region's celebrities -- among them Phyllis George Brown (Miss-America-cum-sports-announcer-cum-first-lady-of-Kentucky) and Kitty Carlisle Hart -- some Appalachian artists, good music and several Spanish-speaking caterers who were a little confused about GooGoo Clusters. But if people don't know about GooGoos, at least they're beginning to learn about Appalachian art.
The preview, which drew hundreds of visitors, gave credence to what some artists have seen as a "tremendous change in the audience" of regional art. For the first time, said Vera Dickerson, an artist from Roanoke who works with papercuts, "people are finally realizing there are a lot of good artists outside the big cities."
Appalachian artists will do a lot for improving the image of the region, predicted Albert Smith Jr., co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, who helped get funds for the exhibit. The commission, he explained, "is concerned with creating job opportunities in Appalachia, to improve the living conditions. Art can communicate the improved image.
"Some of the strongest statements about Appalachia have been made by the artists," he added.
While everyone seems to be familiar with the crafts produced in the region, often referred to as "primitive art," people have been a little slow to discover "fine art," which this exhibit is designed to show off. Steve Ferguson, a painter of abstract watercolors and a teacher in Boone, N.C., said the exhibit culminates the growing "communication between artists" in the South who he says are "pushing harder" to establish galleries and exhibits outside the urban areas.
And while the exhibit shows the spectrum of Appalachian art, the reception was successful at showing off the spectrum of politicians, including Maryland's Gov. Harry Hughes and his wife, Patricia (she was chairwoman of the committee that planned the preview). And the tables were laden with a spectrum of "regional" food.
Don't feel bad if you didn't expect an Appalachian-style groaning board to include pickled okra from Alabama. Neither did Kitty Carlisle Hart. She said she didn't know Appalachia stretched that far until about five years ago.
West Virginia ham notwithstanding, there were some real questions about the authenticity of the food, if not about the art or the enthusiasts. First, nobody in Kentucky ever got a mint julep that strong at Churchill Downs. Second, although fried chicken and cream gravy might be mother's milk to native Georgians, it seems doubtful they eat a lot of "drummettes" -- sections of fried chicken wings. Edam cheese from Mississippi? Wine from Pennsylvania?
One thing is for sure, however: GooGoo Clusters are THE state dish in Tennessee. Even the artists say that the chocolate-covered peanut-marshmallow candy is a staple of their daily diets. And if you don't believe it, then you haven't been listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which made the clusters famous.